Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Islamist victory casts shadow over Tunisia's Jews

Ennahda party supporters in Tunis celebrate victory (Photo: EPA)

'Happily and freely' is how the Jews have always lived in Tunisia, and the rise to power of the Islamists ('moderate and pluralist') is only a little worrying. Well, Roger Bismuth, the Jewish community leader, would say that, wouldn't he? Rachel Shabi's bland and lazy piece in The Independent, quoting Bismuth at length, harks back to a mythical age of coexistence at variance with other accounts (See here and here). Contrast with the Ynet News article below.

Tunisia’s Jewish community, which dates back three millennia, used to number over 100,000 but has dwindled to 1500, in a country with a population of over 10 million. The creation of Israel in 1948 and Tunisian independence from French rule in 1956 were both factors in the exodus, mostly to those two countries. Now, after the ouster of reviled dictator Zine el AbidineBen Ali and as the country counts the votes for its first free elections, which were held on Sunday and have left the country's moderate islamist party Ennahda with the greatest share of the vote, this tiny community is cautious over what lies ahead.

“We have absolutely no problems living here,” says Roger Bismuth, 85, head of Tunisia’s Jewish community. “In periods like this we worry a little, because of the [Islamist] religious parties who have an agenda that may not be so good for us.”

The concerns are over a potential rise in power of Tunisia ’s previously banned Islamic Ennahda Renaissance) party, predicted to take a chunk of the votes. Ennahda campaigned over moderate, pluralist credentials, but secular Tunisians worry it could impose a religious agenda on a society that is one of the most liberal in the Arab world.

Ben Ali, for all his corruption and abuses, maintained the Tunisian rulers’ tradition of safeguarding the Jewish community. “If the situation remains OK, we can continue to live freely and happily,” says Bismuth.

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Avi Magnezi in Ynet News seeks a greater variety of Jewish views:

While Ghannouchi is considered a moderate leader, many of his party members and no less important – many of his voters support extreme Islamist views, something which could affect the country's Jewish minority.

Tunisia's Jewish community now numbers less than 2,000 Jews following years of persecution in a community that once numbered over 100,000 Jews.

"It doesn't matter to us whether the leader is Ghannouchi or anybody else as long as there's a democracy like everyone keeps promising," said Rabbi Benjamin Hatab who serves as the head of the main synagogue in the country's capital in Tunis. "We have no problem with Islamic leaders."

Rabbi Hatab explained that even before the elections Ghannouchi attempted to lessen concerns among the secular citizens and Jews in particular. "He declared that the country would not change and that the only difference would be that it would be more democratic than Ben Ali's Tunisia.

"Ghannouchi promised to create jobs for the younger generation and even sent a delegation to Djerba to reassure the Jews there that everything would ok and that they have nothing to worry about. His representatives even brought gifts to Tunis' Jewish nursing home."

Tunisia's historic elections even included a Jewish candidate – Jacob Lellouche who is running on the Union, Popular and Republican Party list. Yet as Rabbi Hatab explained, at most Lellouche is aspiring to cooperate with other candidates.

Israel, does not even factor into the elections. Rabbi Hatab noted that as a whole the contenders declared that they have no business with Israel, and he accepts this: "We've lived with Muslims our entire lives and we believe things will be ok."

Hai Camus, a member of Djerba's Jewish community told Ynet that he avoided voting for Ghannouchi instead choosing to vote for a more liberal candidate. Yet unlike Rabbi Hatab, he is concerned with the Islamist party's rise to power.

"This is the beginning of their road and I believe that right now they won't be taking any extreme steps but no one can make promises about what will happen two or three years from now," he warned.

Explaining his view Camus said: "Ghannouchi is an Islamist and even if he says he isn't an extremist – his extremist supporters are the ones that elected him and brought him to power. In the last few weeks the extremists stirred up eligible voters to vote for him so he belongs to the extremists.

Camus also believes that the Tunisian Jews' yearning to make aliyah to Israel has gotten an extra boost from the election results: "We always want to make aliyah, it's nothing news, we need to make aliyah and we may do so in the near future God willing".

Haim Damari, who made aliyah from Tunisia when he was eight years old and conducts tours in Tunisia, believes that Tunisia will remain on relatively good terms with its Jewish population. Much of this stance is based on the economic reality in Tunisia. "Tunisia doesn't have oil or other resources, all it has its tourism industry – 10 million tourists a year… I don't see any leader endangering that."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry for Tunisian Jews/
At one time or other it will be time for Kaddish, just as with our Jewish Egyptian community/ Amen
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